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4 Ways To Fix The Fast Food Industry

McDonald's, Burger King, and their ilk could learn a lot from foodie culture, writes RKS Design CEO Ravi Sawhney.

Over the past decade the term foodie has become a badge of honor among many consumers, altering how Americans eat. Foodie culture has grown immensely and continues to influence the way in which Americans think about, talk about and, most importantly, identify with food. Visiting a famous chef’s restaurant or a food truck on some obscure street corner is a source of excitement and exploration that is eagerly shared through social media; the hashtag "foodie" has appeared more than 5 million times on Instagram, according to the app's search function.

Ironically, as data rolls in from surveys like the Gallup Poll, revealing that 8 out of 10 Americans are still eating fast food at least once a month, the connection between the rapidly growing foodie culture and the old champion of Modernist production is becoming difficult to establish. Contrary to the empowerment and pride associated with sharing "foodie" experiences, social media posts regarding fast food consumption imply emotions of guilt, feeling overweight, and a sense of embarrassment among peers—#Imfat, #fattie, #fat, or #diettomorrow. Curious as to the reasons behind this stark contrast, researchers at RKS explored how design could play a role in reconciling such distinctive experiences.

We began by posing the question: Could a $191 billion dollar industry like fast food really learn something from the niche foodie culture? We decided to find out. We put on our ethnographic lenses and bravely entered the world of the fast-food lunch rush. We observed customers’ journeys at a diverse range of fast food chains as well as food trucks, drawing insight through every touch point. To augment our observational understanding we also conducted a few ad hoc interviews with customers, ultimately formulating principles that could shift the negative perception of fast food into a relevant experience for tomorrow’s customer.

Image: Food truck via Joe Steer / Shutterstock


Food is just as much a cultural marker and social experience as it is a sustenance provider. In contradistinction with the experience provided at many fast food chains, food trucks provide a very personalized experience. We found consumers engaging in casual chitchat, feeling as though they were part of a community. Unlike many fast food chains that operate as an assembly line, the food truck operator handled orders, cash, food preparation, and serving. The customer was able to engage with the same person at every aspect of the experience, which provided a more meaningful experience.

So what if fast food chains assigned only one server to one customer and had that server engage in all aspects of the customer experience including ordering, preparation, calling the customer by name (instead of by number) and hand-delivering his or her food? Eliminating such harsh separation of these roles would largely eliminate the anonymity, cog-in-a-machine feel of fast food restaurants and replace it with casual, yet genuine interactions that heighten perceived value.


There were two main ways to communicate high-quality food that we observed: wait time and visibility of fresh ingredients. It may be counterintuitive, but people are not as reluctant to wait for their "fast" food as some might expect. At food trucks we discovered that a long line communicates to customers that the food is worth the wait. And while customers wait for their food, they see fresh ingredients on display, which reinforces their perception of the product’s quality.

We observed such behavior at the regional hotspot In-N-Out Burger. Due to the high visibility of ingredients in the kitchen, customers were able to see raw potatoes sliced and fried. This reassures them that the ingredients are fresh, lifting the stigma associated with processed food. The immediate, palpable feedback is much more effective than current strategies we observed at some fast food chains; McDonald's, for instance, had a looped video of farms where they supposedly source their "fresh" lettuce. Through interviews and observation, we also found that customers who ordered food were less willing to believe ingredients were fresh and locally sourced when they saw rows of burgers and fries sitting under heat lamps. What if fast food chains made their food-preparation process more visible to their customers, heightening the value and integrity of the product?


At the food truck event, we noticed that each truck has a narrative element that brings customers delight. Perhaps it’s the story of combining unusual ingredients or bringing together street food from China and Mexico to create an original experience. Often fast food restaurants have a rich history but they rarely use these stories in a way that resonates with customers. What if fast food chains embraced their history and used it to craft a more meaningful identity? For multinational chains, it is easy to create a generic image. A narrative that is unique to the local context gives consumers a sense of heritage, makes them feel like the chain has been successful over time and, most importantly, encourages strong customer loyalty.


A recent New York Times article pointed out that American society is becoming more interested in "flexitarianism"-–a diet that is rich in plants and includes fewer animal products and processed foods. The article recognized that flexitarianism is not another fad diet but instead is increasingly becoming a lifestyle.

Fast food chains need to recognize that people are not merely concerned with losing weight with more fat-free and artificially sweetened foods; they see health as a way of life that incorporates unprocessed, hormone and pesticide-free foods through environmentally and socially sustainable practices. What if fast food restaurants started incorporating health-driven lifestyles into their menus? Instead of adding surface-level fixes like salads and sugar-packed fruit smoothies, the fast food industry should provide meaningful additions that showcase to consumers a nuanced understanding of health.

Of course, a $191 billion industry does not change overnight. Nonetheless, these design insights can start a conversation about transforming fast food into a relevant industry that is aligned with the evolving cultural codes, values, and aspirations of tomorrow’s consumer.

[Images: Courtesy of RKS]

[Image: Fast food via Shutterstock]

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  • Great article, Ravi. I'm interested in your question and in your process. I'm also working around food and how design might influence change, but in the area of redundant produce trade. I wonder if we might be able to continue to leverage the groundswell of interest in local, non-GMO, fresh foods enough to ultimately impact the revenues of fast food chains. Percentages are everything and eventually, they're going to notice that putting lipstick on a pig isn't really having the desired effect.

    There will always be a market for fast food chains, it's just a matter of whether it will remain big enough to sustain a multi-national model. I agree with MURFTRONIC on the minimum wage issue. By keeping wages where they are, fast food chains are maintaining their own captured audience of customers. Lack of education in low-income populations, combined with the fact that fresh, non-GMO, organic and local are SO not on their radar due to cost, and there will always be customers for fast food.

  • Chris Galat

    LEAN principles: It's why fast food companies will never buy into foodie culture... A high quality experience is time-consuming, and time is money.

  • Daniel Swan

    It's too bad that a high quality experience doesn't mean much to the big names.

  • Joseph Szala

    Well written, but it fails to look at the operational side of the QSR business model. Cheap food, fast is what has built these empires and the examples above would eliminate both complete making it expensive and slower. McDonald's is having a hard time currently because they're trying to be something they aren't: healthy. Now, higher quality could be an option for the bigger chains, however you now have to figure out distribution, supply chain and other elements that will most likely increase cost. They'd price themselves out of the market. Go local? Okay, how do you maintain consistency from locale to locale? You can't. Consistency is everything in the food service industry.

  • econobiker

    InNOut Burger and Chick Fil A are the model for good fast food.

    Those places do not race to the bottom of the hiring wage and also provide good food. This could be because those companies management groups actually have morals versus just "profits only" business ethics.

    Kind of the difference between a sweat shop manufacturing and craftsman manufacturing.

  • Karen Ferguson

    You nailed it, Ravi, no more diets, but lifestyles!! The industry could change "overnight" so to speak. It would just take a "leap of faith" to do so. Why not approach McD's? I'll help. :-)
    Dean Ornish, MD used to be a consultant with them; not sure that helped so much. So instead of fat, we are ingesting more sugar now. And, that's the latest [along w/ flour products that turn to sugar] correlation to heart disease. []
    You rock!! Hugs...Karen in Kalifornia!

  • Anthony Reardon

    Very good Ravi, thanks for including us in the conversation.

    It's not really too easy, I would think, to sympathize with the challenges faced by the fast food industry. From a firm's perspective, absolutely, you must be talking about a huge account here. Nonetheless I like how you tackle the challenge by asking the most essential questions that we all probably take for granted. Question everything. Challenge every assumption. Start over and approach the entire issue from the perspective of people. You are hitting some good points, but I take exception to your phrasing, emphasis, and conclusions.

    The first question that comes to my mind is, "Why would anyone care?" I think there is a pretty commonly accepted stigma people associate with fast food. It's basically understood to be cheap product produced at scale. You see a majority of these organizations shifting to what appears to be more premium quality food, but I don't think most people fail to notice the costs being passed on to them. We just naturally assume there is a margin built in that is highly favorable for the vendor. It comes back to this notion these are greedy corporations that don't really care about people and their food, and simply look at the industry as a money cow. It's one thing to try to reshape the perceptions of consumers, and another to face up to the boards and investors demanding rock and hard place overhead mitigation vs. profitability. The response to improve is generally not a tasteful initiative on some core values, but a necessity brought about by forces affecting the market...namely competition.

    Case in point comes to mind was Dominos Pizza just a few years ago. They were so marginalized you could hardly differentiate the product from the box it came in. They too went back to the drawing board to solve the "what", but the "why" also matters to the consumers. Why were they putting out such a poor product in the first place? It's because they were completely disconnected and didn't care. They might be doing better and have saved the business from completely going under, but that doesn't necessarily shift the way consumers feel about them. There's a tacit agreement with fast food. You know you get the convenience of delivery at an affordable price, but the least you expect is to get what you paid for, and not less. So you have to acknowledge the relationship for what it is. For example Pizza Hut used to be about a family dining experience. Drove by one today that was just a sign on a door, no doubt a pure delivery hub. Or, Papa Johns seems to have done well with their "better" ingredients idea, even if they might not be doing too much different than some others, but the perception is out there that fast food is all about cutting corners, so it works. Then you get Papa Murphy's with their value proposition, but you've got to consider a lot of people are shocked when they realize they bought an uncooked pizza. They might have saved a dollar to get higher quality, but the buck has been passed on to them, and this is not lost on many consumers. Fast food just is what it is. It's just business.

    If you study the decision-making habits underlying the choice to go to fast food, I think you will find it has very little to do with the decision to go to an alternative place to eat. People do it on the basis of expected convenience in time, transaction, cost, low cognitive overhead (don't want to think much about it), and the compulsion to satisfy their hunger with something tasty and refreshing. It's a formula that has been perfected...basically bun, meat, salted/fried potatoes, and a soft drink. it works for the companies, and it works for the consumers when all they care about is getting it over with. You get into dangerous territory when you mess with that formula BTW. Look into "satisficing" and "sub-optimization" decision-making strategies. That's the basis. People go to alternative options because they want to put more intention behind their choice. It's a different decision-making process, but it often starts with the contrast to fast food as the first option.

    I'm not so sure you can suggest the concept of Foodie has changed the way people eat. My understanding is it's the other way around. People started making a noted shift to change the way they eat, and Foodie culture was born. A couple notes on this. Where fast food competes with its given brand of convenience, quality, value, and service- almost universally on the economics of scale and location, alternative vendors have made due with what strengths they could to differentiate on the unmet needs. It's a different brand of the same kinds of things- almost universally on the economics of doing things that are not scalable. You can design a new kind of experience that emulates the foodie experience, but hard to imagine doing much more than superficial appearances. If you don't fundamentally change the business model, then you're not going to be really doing those things, and people will go with the experiences that deliver on their expectations. Again, I would also caution that if you shift the value proposition, or even fundamentally shift the business models, people might be just as displeased to not get what they have come to expect from fast food.

    Now to solutions. After reading up on your design philosophy, I am sure you will get this. Foodie culture is appealing because of how it makes people feel about themselves. What you see with the Foodies' integration of social media is an extension of that. They are saying check out what I am into, what this says about me, how I want to relate to's not the vendors' brand so much, it's actually the consumers' own branding. Fast food has the budget and capabilities to support individuals' personal food branding. What you see out there today is mostly gimmicky; I'm loving it, have it your way, don't bother me I'm eating, live mas, Jack's back, etc. The slogans carry over to a mentality people can want to associate with, but hardly has anything to do with their taste in food and lifestyle other than wanting a bacon fix or whatever. It's just not broke. There is room for improvement however by doing some things different- namely I would say playing to fast food's strengths but doing it better to the point you can get the same kind of outcome in foodie culture.

    What that would be like in my mind is leveraging technology. So, you're close to some drive through, and you find that you see a flexible deal bid to your phone if you order on your way. Drive thru's will be flying, so better convenience, better price, better service etc, and then you work on those images of rows of burgers under heat lamps for better quality. You pull up to a menu and it recommends based on inventory you want to clear out. Instead of throwing away said $ figure of inventory, you invite more cooperation with the consumer, pass some of the overhead savings on to them, and pick up the rest with increased profits. Involve people in the menu. So, maybe enough people can agree and commit that Friday this week is going to be enchilada day at McDonalds with locally grown produce and from so and so popular chef. You still get the Costco style bulk leverage, but now you are getting more dynamic to respond to consumer preferences. They might be in your app negotiating a vote and bid a couple days in advance even. Possibilities are endless. Maybe some of them make friends with a local farmer and go out to get their "selfies" with them and some fresh tomatoes to take home. Look at spelling out the nutrition data and then scanning that into a tracker they work with on a daily basis. People might get more control over their more complete and nutritious diet by going to fast food. Etc, etc, etc.

    Getting hungry just thinking about it, lol!

    Best, Anthony

  • David Oliver

    Unfortunately, local, fresh and non-GMO run counter to the supply chain that the biggest fast food chains have encouraged. Their buying power and influence have driven consolidation and changes to food production that go beyond their restaurants, effecting our choices in the supermarket. This is the reason a meal at (fill-in-the-blank) fast food restaurant is cheaper than a handful of fresh vegetables in most places.

    Their political lobbying power has eroded oversight of food production.
    Farm subsidies make cornmeal cheaper than a field of grass, so we raise cattle(along with pigs,chickens, etc.)on it. Nevermind the fact that they can't properly digest it, because they get fat faster and can be raised in close quarters. So what if they tend to be less healthy, we'll devise methods to kill e-coli, salmonella and maybe some day mad cow disease.

    Someone will say this is just good business(Brice already did), and I suppose it is to a point. Who wants to eat food that was produced with far more care for the bottom-line, than for the food?

    The findings of your research look sound. The biggest hurdle to adoption of them beyond a new marketing campaign is a want to make something other than the cheapest thing that still looks like a burger(or whatever else they are selling).
    The truth is the guy running the food truck has a line because he cares about the food and his customers.

  • murftronic

    In addition to the points mentioned in this article, you can't leave out the elephant in the room, 'raising the minimum wage' and embracing a living wage. When you are speaking to brands such as McDonalds, Burger KIng, Jack in the Box, etc., The big brands are all generally fighting or creating resistance to this responsibility. This is vital to any foodie as we will pay for better and healthier ingredients but need to know the full time workers are not stuck in deep in poverty in the process.

  • econobiker

    Chick fil A and In-N-Out Burger buck the trend of racing to the bottom of the minimum wage and the popularity of those companies shows it.

  • Andy

    Good article, great read. New Zealand has an award winning network television series on "reinventing" fast food using a similar theory that has run for 2 years. A lot of the observations you make are seen in this TV series. It's called "The Food Truck" and this is a trailer for it

  • Brice Bohrer

    I guess I missed the point of why the fast food industry must change? Why do they need fixed? If it is because they are losing money, then yes, fixing they need and they will gladly engage in what must be done to correct that. But if the reason they must change is because some Foodies don't like fast food but prefer an overpriced truck sandwich? Well that is not a good reason. Just because we don't like someones product is not a reason for them to change.

  • handi45

    This article sort of misses the original point of franchise restaurants.
    Howard Johnson's, and later fast food restaurants, emerged along with the wanderlust car culture after WWII. Before Yelp and Around Me, travelers had no way to reliably choose a good or even safe restaurant in an unknown city. Franchises arose to provide a known level (if not a high level) of quality when away from the familiar.
    Prior to this, pretty much every restaurant used more local products, had their own spice palate and recipes. This made them undoubtedly more interesting, but also a greater risk.
    I, unlike the average quoted in the story, eat in a fast food restaurant far less than once a month, and virtually never within 100 miles of home. But when traveling, especially by car with the family, seeing the signs for a known fast food restaurant means that we can stop, eat and be back on the road quickly and with a minimum of fuss and risk.
    When I travel alone, I can be and usually am far more adventurous. I have had "oil can chicken" bought from a street vendor in Kingston, Jamaica and hand made tacos from a stand in Tijuana, Mexico. I typically have a guide that can steer me to the best local foods and flavors, but for people like my wife, with fairly strict dietary restrictions, a known brand is almost a must.

  • ravisawhney

    I wouldn't say that we missed the point or that we're being exclusive in any way. Things are changing; people, places, food and lifestyles. I think fast food restaurants are learning all they could and should from emerging trends and niche market solutions. We're simply exploring the what if.